This is the second post in a two part series exploring the work of Brian Davis, the Digital Production Unit Supervisor, which emphasizes the importance of digitization and digital preservation in Special Collections and the Valley Library, and the field more broadly.
How did you get involved in the alliance’s digital preservation working group?
I don’t remember if I volunteered or was asked to be part of the working group, but I’ve been a member since January of 2016.
I’ve been involved with digital preservation at the institutional level for while, which means that I’ve largely worked alone or with one other person. Working with a larger group sounded like something that I’d like to try. There are five of us in this group. The first thing we did was put together a digital preservation survey for alliance members to gauge where their institutions are in terms of digital preservation, and then build out training resources based on the responses.
We could tell from the survey responses that there is a lot of confusion about digital preservation among alliance members. We ended up putting together an extensive website based upon the NDSA’s Levels of Digital Preservation. Each member of the group took on one of the five sections, mine was Fixity & Data Integrity, and I helped with the File Formats section. We also planned for each member to lead a webinar on their respective sections. I led two webinars in June of 2017. The webinars were supposed to have been recorded for those who weren’t able to attend, but they had issues with the GoToWebinar software and couldn’t figure it out in time.
What is the importance of outreach for you in your position and for the larger library community?
There’s little time for outreach outside of the day-to-day workload for me. It’s just me and two part-time students in the DPU who do the digitization, and I do the digital preservation. If I do any sort of outreach, then I have to shift other parts of my job.
While more along the lines of service than outreach, my digital preservation work for the alliance comes directly from the daily work I do and hasn’t required that much extra time outside of work.
I have found ways to share much of the work I do externally. For instance, most of the audiovisual tools I use are command-line driven, so I’ve translated many of them into right-clickable shell scripts and share them via GitHub. I’m also pretty active on digipres.club, as well as with the Twitter hashtags #digitalpreservation and #avpreservation. I was maintaining work-related tumblr for a while, but putting together regular posts takes some time, so I’ve abandoned that. I’ve been using the Medium publishing platform to share DPU workflows and digitization specifications with others since access to wiki pages outside of the library is problematic.
What do you focus on in your training? What do you think are key takeaways for your training webinars?
I actually don’t do very much training any more. That’s not to say that there’s nothing for me to learn, I just don’t have that much time. The last instructor-led training thing I did was the Dive Into Hydra workshop at Code4Lib 2015. Now my training is more DIY, where I’ll find a resource online and go at my own pace. There has to be something practical that comes out of it, otherwise its pointless. In 2010, I took an Objective-C class that Stanford University offered through iTunes-U. When I finished the coursework I was able to build a few iOS apps, one was a companion app for Omeka image galleries I had setup previously and the other was an app for the library I was working for at the time.
A more recent example of my DIY approach is the local ZFS storage system that I use for my videotape digitization workflow. Oracle has a number of great guides on how to configure ZFS systems and I needed a good short-term storage appliance in my office. After a bit of reading and a couple of tutorials, I was able to configure a ZFS system on an old Mac Pro that I have in my office and I now have daily backups, replication, self-healing, snapshots, etc. These are all the things you want from your storage system. Another example is tmux, which is a terminal multiplexer that allows me to have multiple bash/ssh sessions open in a single window. There are a number of great tutorials out there, along with a lot of bad ones. It did take a bit of extra tweaking for me to get it customized due to the key bindings being different on a Mac, but it was definitely worthwhile.
You also have worked with young people as they are working on their degrees and entering the field. How do you encourage and support these new participants in the field?
Since we’re a small unit with a relatively large amount of work being sent our way every day, it’s a struggle to find a balance between making this job a learning opportunity for students and maintaining a reasonable level of productivity. For students, a lot of it is just picking up bits and pieces as the work proceeds. Of all the students that I’ve supervised, I think that only one has gone on to study library or archival science.
We have a current student in the DPU who is very interested in archives, digitization, and digital preservation — pretty much everything that we do. She also has a solid technology background, so she takes on a lot of the higher-level work. I would love to be able to spend time showing her a bit more about the digital preservation work that I do, as well as the videotape digitization processes. She’s only able to work 20hrs a week and that doesn’t leave time for additional training.
Where do you see the field going? How do you see your work being important for the future of libraries and scholarship?
As the question relates to digitization in general, I think that most institutions have already gotten into building digital collections. The next steps could include getting into preservation-level digitization for certain materials. While the fundemental equipment isn’t that expensive, getting someone with the appropriate skill level to do the work could make it prohibitive for many organizations. However, there are plenty of vendors out there offering this type of digitization.
Digital preservation is the one thing that I get asked about most often. I think that we’re going to start seeing an influx of organizations looking to fill digital preservation-focused positions. It’s not an issue that’s going away.
Hopefully everyone knows that magnetic videotape is an obsolete format that is actively degrading. It’s doing that even in ideal storage conditions. It’s estimated that the window of opportunity to preserve this content closes in fifteen to twenty years, less for certain formats. More institutions are going to try to follow what Indiana University is doing with their Media Digitization & Preservation Initiative. Audiovisual digitization is something that the Orbis Cascade Alliance has discussed as a potential area to offer some sort of service. I would love to be involved with something like that.
Why should we care about preserving obsolete formats (Beta, VHS, etc.) and continuing to preserve them as we get more and more digital?
I think that tape-based materials, such as Betacam and VHS, are deceptive when compared to other collection items. While the exterior of the tape itself may look clean and like new, the actual carrier of the content, the magnetic coated polyester, is unstable. Depending on the manufacturer and age of the tape, it could be suffering from loss of the lubricant that assists the tape as it winds through the tape deck, or the binder holding the magnetized signal could be absorbing moisture from the air, making the surface too sticky for playback.
Magnetic tape was never meant to have a very long shelf life. It was initially developed to save a recording for a very short period of time. Bing Crosby was doing a live radio show two times a day in the mid-1940’s, once for the east coast and another for the west coast. He only wanted to do one show so that he could get an earlier start on the his evening festivities. He invested pretty heavily in this new technology that would allow the radio station to play back a recording of the earlier show, which they were finally able to do in 1947.
There’s also the obsolescence issue, where the machines required to playback the various formats are no longer being made and replacement parts are becoming scarce. Even if you can locate machines and parts, finding someone who knows how to do the repair work is becoming difficult. All the old school broadcast engineers are retiring, so there’s a vacuum of knowledge and experience fast approaching. Considering all of this, I think it’s vitally important for SCARC to preserve these materials pretty quickly. This includes audiotape recordings since they are on the same carrier with the same issues as videotape.
I have been able to digitize 342 videotapes for SCARC over the course of the last four years. Much of what comes through DPU is sports-related, which is pretty popular. Outside of athletics, there’s amazing content ranging from flyover shots from an erupting Mount St. Helens and mechanized potato harvesting footage from the Oregon Tilth records to ridiculous (and awesome) KBVR productions like No Big Whoop and Limited Reality.